Azerbaijani authorities open criminal investigation into Meydan TV

New York, April 22, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Azerbaijani authorities to end the harassment of Meydan TV after a criminal investigation was opened into the online independent outlet and a travel ban was imposed on some of its contributors.

Meydan TV announced on its website Thursday that prosecutors in Azerbaijan had opened a criminal investigation into the outlet for alleged illegal business activities, abuse of power, and tax evasion. Elchin Sadygov, a local lawyer who has been defending Meydan TV journalists in court and who has viewed the case materials, said that prosecutors named 15 of the outlet’s local contributors in the investigation, the outlet reported. The contributors were referred to as “witnesses” by the prosecutors, according to the independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel. No charges or arrests have been made, but Meydan TV reported that a number of contributors are barred from leaving Azerbaijan and authorities searched homes of contributors and confiscated reporting equipment. CPJ was unable to determine how many contributors are under the travel ban.

“We call on officials in Azerbaijan to immediately cease the witch hunt of contributors to the online broadcaster Meydan TV,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “The broadcaster is known for its critical reporting on the repressive policies of the Azerbaijani government and for providing crucial alternative news to local audiences in a heavily censored media environment.”

Meydan TV, which reports on human rights abuses and government corruption in Azerbaijan, closed its newsroom in Baku in December 2014 out of concern for the safety of its staff, the broadcaster announced in a statement on its website. The outlet currently produces from Germany, using contributors in Azerbaijan. Authorities have continued to pressure the station, issuing threats to Emin Milli, the outlet’s director who was forced into exile, and harassing and jailing Meydan TV contributors in Azerbaijan, according to reports.

In a statement sent to Kavkazsky Uzel, Milli denied any wrongdoing and called the charges absurd because Meydan TV is carrying out all of its activities in Germany–not Azerbaijan–and makes its fiscal reports available to German authorities. According to Kavkazsky Uzel, Millis said in the statement that his station’s “only crime was utilizing our right to free speech.”

Sadygov said when he was in court in Baku for a separate Meydan TV case on April 18, a judge informed him that the grave crimes department of the general prosecutor’s office had opened a case against the broadcaster, according to Kavkazsky Uzel.

Although several journalists were freed from Azerbaijani jails after a presidential pardon in March, the country’s press freedom record is poor, CPJ research shows. At least four critical reporters, including journalists Nijat Aliyev, Araz Guliyev, Seymur Hazi, and Khadija Ismayilova, remain jailed there.